Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013, A Year in Reading: Best and Worst Books of the Year

I read 47 books in 2013, a marked improvement on last year's dismal showing but still far from where I'd like to be.  I still find myself in periods where reading just doesn't appeal, but happily these are interspersed with others when it's the only thing I'm interested in doing, and hopefully the latter will grow more common in 2014.  And, as in 2012, what my reading lacked in quantity it made up for in quality--despite the title, there are no "worst" books this year, nothing that I'm genuinely angry about having read (or even the fact of its being published), and as regular readers of this blog may notice this year's list of best books and honorable mentions is quite a bit longer than previous years' (and might have been longer still if it hadn't been for some culling--I may yet wake up next week and realize that one of the half-dozen books that were bubbling just under this list actually deserved to be on it).

Probably the biggest reading "event" of 2013 was my epic read-through and review (1, 2) of the Arthur C. Clarke shortlist, something I hadn't done since 2008.  Though I found the shortlist variable (and am ambivalent about the eventual winner, Chris Beckett's Dark Eden), the experience of immersing myself in so much recent SF, and then having to write about it in long-form in what felt, towards the end, like a feverish haze (it still amazes me that my review came out anything like coherent given that I put the finishing touches on it hours before its publication) was heady enough that I'm almost tempted to do it again this year.  Another important reading event was my participation in Crooked Timber's seminar on Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City (the latter of which is one of those books that might, if the wind were from a different quarter, have made this year's best books list).  Having to consider a work from the point of view of an essayist, rather than a reviewer, was challenging and interesting, and I'm pleased with how my contribution came out.  But I also very much enjoyed reading the contributions of other participants, and the resulting discussion.

A little less than half the books I read in 2013 were by women, which was not a foregone conclusion given the weight that the all-male Clarke shortlist had.  Around the middle of the year I made the conscious decision to balance my reading, and read at least one book by a woman for every book I read by a man.  I haven't stuck to that resolution very religiously, but it's definitely a guideline that I plan to keep in mind.  Books in translation made up 15% of the year's reading, which I'm fairly certain is a high point, but also a number worth improving on.  I had several reading projects planned for this year that I never got around to--a continuation of the Women Writing SF series from a few years ago, and a large stack of recent Israeli genre books that I wanted to blog about.  Perhaps having made those intentions public means that I'll finally get around to carrying them out in 2014.

Without any further ado, then, here are 2013's best books, its honorable mentions, and its dishonorable ones, in order of the author's surname.

Best Books:
  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

    In a field suffused with YA novels about plucky young girls with secret powers in an unforgiving world, it's easy to dismiss Hartman's debut out of hand.  The fact that its fantasy creatures of choice are dragons certainly doesn't help--it conjures up far too many examples of authors who treat dragons like oversized, sentient cats.  But Hartman's dragons are remarkably fresh and unsentimental, as is her titular heroine, whose bravery and competence are convincing without being overstated, and who conveys the anguish of living a double life, and of doubting her own humanity, without losing sight of the fact that her problems are not the most important thing in her story.  The most impressive thing in Seraphina, however, is the novel's broad, detailed world, and how Hartman establishes it, complete with a storied history, culture, and geography, in a relatively slim novel without ever letting the plot's pace flag.  As appealing as I found its central story--which revolves around prejudice, religion, and the painstaking process of making peace--what makes me eager for Seraphina's sequel(s?) are the half-dozen sub-plots and side quests that Hartman introduces in it, creating a sense of a fully realized world that I am eager to continue exploring.

  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (review)

    If I ran the Clarke award, MacLeod's understated but quietly devastating novel would have won it with hardly any competition.  Working in the time-honored tradition of social SF, MacLeod raises questions about the meaning of freedom when he imagines a world in which government interference in its citizens' lives is well-intentioned and often benevolent, but nevertheless onerous.  This makes it a challenging read if you're someone who thinks that seat belt laws and public smoking bans are a good thing, but rather than browbeating his readers MacLeod creates a world that is stifling almost from the book's first sentence, and places at its center a vivid, sympathetic heroine whose refusal to accommodate her society's definition of public good isn't entirely understandable, even to herself.  Intrusion is not without its flaws--a secondary plotline in which a character is caught up in brutal anti-terror tactics is more heavy-handed than the main plot strand, and the book's conclusion is somewhat overheated.  But as an example of what SF can do, even with a very limited segment of its toolbox, it is both masterful and exciting.

  • The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

    Bar none, the weirdest, most exhilarating book I read in 2013.  Oates is one of two authors on this list whom I read for the first time this year, and The Accursed sets a high bar that it is hard to imagine the rest of her writing clearing, if only because no one could possibly be writing stuff this strange on a regular basis for decades.  At its heart a ghost story about the misfortunes of a single, upper class American family in the early 20th century, The Accursed proceeds in multiple plot strands and shifting styles to become something much baggier than that simple description suggests.  It gestures at a simple explanation for its characters' suffering, indicting them for the repressive system that they prop up and benefit from, and for the vicious, frequently brutal prejudice against black people in which their culture is steeped.  But always when the novel seems about to resolve itself and reveal a method to its madness, it twists away and recommits to the inherent irrationality of its events.  All of which is to make The Accursed sound difficult and weighty, but in reality this is a propulsive, exciting, frequently quite funny novel that begs you to keep turning the pages, whether through characters who remain sympathetic despite frequently deserving their suffering, a knowing and witty pastiche of seemingly every major work of 19th century literature, or the gonzo outrageousness of its plot.

  • Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

    The other author into whose bibliography I made a late foray in 2013, and if Mr. Fox is any indication I have no idea why I waited so long.  A novel in stories whose parts--multiple retellings of the Bluebeard story as well as realist fiction tinged by it--are as engaging as its whole, in which an author in the 1930s is castigated by his muse for killing off women in his stories, and his dissatisfied wife suspects him of having an affair with a woman who may be a figment of his imagination.  Mr. Fox veers wildly between styles and modes, but its three main characters remain vivid in any guise, and the romance between them is as sweet as the issues that underlie the novel--the role of women as muses, helpmeets, or murder victims, but never artists in their own right--are trenchant and painful.  This is a witty, funny, romantic work, whose pleasures are both cerebral--working out the connections between the stories and the way that each one reflects on the framing story and the novel's themes--and deeply emotional.

  • A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (review)

    Samatar's debut takes a while to resolve itself, seeming, in its first half, like a beautifully written travelogue of a vividly imagined fantasy world.  This in itself, of course, is no mean accomplishment, and the rich, poetic prose with which A Stranger in Olondria relates the experiences of its narrator in the titular empire is very nearly worth the price of admission in its own right.  But it's in its second half that the book transitions from accomplished to genuinely special, slowly and subtly introducing themes of race and colonialism in a way that makes them resonate all the more when they finally become apparent, and weaving into them a powerful discussion of the power of books, one that avoids the soppy sentimentality that such discussions usually descend into.  Reminiscent in some ways of Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, A Stranger in Olondria is also very much its own, unique creation, a powerful reminder of what fantasy is capable of even within the seemingly limiting category of secondary world fantasy.
Honorable Mentions:
  • Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks (review) - A vital component of Banks's Culture sequence, this novel functions as a sort of puzzle, which only resolves in its final pages.  This made for a frustrating read, but one that in retrospect only gains in power and importance.

  • Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick - Focusing on the stories of six North Korean defectors, Demick's book is both an engrossing, heartbreaking primer on that country's history and present misfortune, and a portrait of how ordinary people cope with life in an irrational system--of the lengths they go to, first to justify their world, and then to escape it.

  • Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner - The same satirical sensibility that made Kästner such an exceptional children's author is here used to skewer and lament pre-war German society, with results that are both funny and terrifying.

  • 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (review) - A whirlwind tour through the solar system of 300 years hence combined with a sweet love story between a woman from Mercury and a man from the moons of Saturn.  Though not without its flaws (chiefly its handling of Earth and the question of first world aid to third world countries), the sheer scope of the novel's worldbuilding, and the touching humanity of its characters, made it impossible to resist.

  • Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih - Small but perfectly formed, this portrait of a small village in post-colonial Sudan touches on a myriad subjects in less than 200 pages, and veers between naturalism and allegory.  And yet it never feels overstuffed or shapeless, and its ideas about the lingering effect of colonialism are powerful and undeniable.
Dishonorable Mentions:
  • NOD by Adrian Barnes (review) - A near future apocalypse novel that, under its gloss of originality, is essentially a bog-standard zombie story.  That the narrator is profoundly unpleasant is clearly deliberate, but just what this is in service of escapes me.

  • Zero History by William Gibson - The Bigend trilogy ends with a whimper, as Gibson continues to rehash ideas about technology and its effect on the world that, while groundbreaking ten years ago, feel like old hat today.

  • Dodger by Terry Pratchett - That Dodger is poorly written and not very funny is perhaps to be expected (and perhaps also not something that it is fair to criticize Pratchett for, though his publishers are certainly fair game).  That it continues the alarming trend of Pratchett's progressivism ossifying into milquetoast, middle class liberalism, however, is simply a tragedy.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Recent Reading Roundup 35

One last edition of recent reading roundup for 2013, before the obligatory summary of the year's reading (coming on December 31st and not a moment sooner, she said, glaring darkly at certain people and publications who list their favorite reads of the year in November, for pity's sake).  This one comes with a particular slant--a few weeks ago, I received a care package from NYRB Classics, that delightful purveyor of rediscovered, unjustly forgotten works in beautiful packaging.  Since I already had a few of their books in my TBR stack, it seemed appropriate to end the year with an NYRB Classics binge (plus one other book).  Not all of these books are ones I would have selected for myself, but the result has been to shine a light on some corners of literature (much of it in translation) that I might not otherwise have explored, and it reminds me once again just how valuable this imprint is.
  • Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks - Since Banks's tragic death earlier this year, I've found myself rationing his remaining unread books, all too aware that there will never be any more.  For my first dip back into Banks's bibliography, I chose Against a Dark Background, which turned out to be a questionable decision--it's certainly not the book that can sustain the goodwill and fond feelings aroused by Banks's passing, indulging as it does in so many of his worst writerly tics (another way of thinking about it, of course, is that it was better to get Background out of the way, so that my last experience of Banks's science fiction will hopefully be a more positive one).  Set outside of the Culture sequence, Against a Dark Background is the story of Sharrow, an aristocrat and former soldier whose family has been in a decades-long feud with a fanatical religious cult, who believe that their messiah can only be born after Sharrow's female line is destroyed.  When the cult wins the legal right to hunt Sharrow for a year, she rounds up her former war buddies and goes in search of the only thing that could buy back her life, the last remaining Lazy Gun, a weapon that kills by altering reality so that its target finds themselves in lethal circumstances.  The Lazy Gun is only one of the many ornate, borderline-ridiculous details of Against a Dark Background's worldbuilding, which is baroque even by Banksian standards, and as will occasionally happen in his writing the novel's story and characters are buried under all this invention.  As in Banks's debut, Consider Phlebas (with which I was not impressed), the relatively simple treasure hunt story is related in a series of set-pieces whose purpose is mainly to show off Banks's gonzo inventiveness and the characters' smallness before the enormous, bizarre universe they live in.  And as in that novel, the result is an airless slog, impressive for the work that has gone into each of its settings, but lacking any sort of propulsive storytelling or compelling characters.

    Unlike Consider Phlebas, however--which gave the Culture series a useful grounding in establishing the horrors of the Idiran war but whose worldbuilding felt superfluous to that point, as if Banks were merely showboating--Against a Dark Background's overstuffed setting ties into the novel's central idea, of a society being crushed by the weight of its own history.  Approaching its "deca-millennium," Sharrow's civilization is overburdened by ancient laws, ancient institutions, and ancient social conventions, as well as a myriad competing philosophies and factions, all fighting over ground so well-trodden that no one could ever truly own it, making change and progress all but impossible.  It's a grim idea, made even grimmer by Banks's conclusion that there is no escaping it except through total destruction (and perhaps not even then), and reflected in Sharrow's own cynical, self-destructive personality.  Banks does a good job of laying out just how Sharrow became the hardened, self-absorbed person that she is--she's not only lived her whole life under the shadow of an assassination plot that claimed her mother when she was very young, but has also lived in a toxic combination of unlimited power (as an aristocrat in a society completely beholden to its past) and terrifying vulnerability (as an impoverished young woman whose relatives are either neglectful or actively predatory).  But this doesn't make her any more pleasant to read about, especially when her adventures destroy and even end the lives of the people who are caught up in them.  Against a Dark Background is a deeply cynical novel--grimdark from before grimdark was even a thing--and Banks is certainly a skilled enough writer to pull that sort of thing off (though he seems to have flinched a little--after the book's publication he released a consolatory epilogue which puts a slightly more positive spin on Sharrow's story), but between that grimness and the novel's stifling worldbuilding, it's an almost punishing read.  Though that may have been Banks's intention, I'm glad that I still have other books by him to look forward to, which can wash the taste of this one away.

  • The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf - Published in 1842, this slim novella is a horror story with a strong religious component that, to me, somewhat undermines its power.  On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, a rural community gathers to celebrate a christening in one of the neighborhood's oldest and most respectable families, whose grandfather suddenly begins to relate a tale of terror: how, hundreds of years ago, the peasants of the region made a deal with the devil to help them complete an impossible task set for them by a tyrannical feudal lord, in exchange for an unbaptized baby.  When the peasants try to trick the devil by baptizing the babies born in their community in secret as soon as they're born, he sends the titular black spider, a monstrous creature whose very touch causes death, and which terrorizes the community until one brave, pious woman manages to trap it.  Described in a few sentences, this seems like too simple a story to sustain even this short volume, but Gotthelf weaves it well, in particular the details of the community, past and present--their terror of the cruel knight, their debates over whether to take the devil's deals, the slow acceptance, when the black spider appears, of the necessity of giving up a baby.  The Black Spider is at its best when it focuses on human frailty--whether it's the peasants turning on each other and refusing to accept blame when the consequences of their choice come back to haunt them, or the knight realizing that he's painted himself into a corner by forcing his serfs to sell their souls but being too proud to admit it, or even the framing story, in which the seemingly benign customs of the christening lunch conceal status anxiety and simmering resentment.  But Gotthelf (the pen name of Albert Bitzius, a Swiss pastor and reformer) is far more interested in his story's religious component, repeatedly stressing the peasants' religious failure--their choice to make a deal with the devil, which damns them irretrievably--over their failure as neighbors and members of a community.  Coupled with the uncomfortable fact that the characters responsible for the devil getting a foothold in the community are all women, whose core failing is being insufficiently modest and self-effacing (while the woman who traps the spider is praised for her piety and self-sacrifice), this makes for some frustrating reading.  At points, The Black Spider is genuinely scary, in both its supernatural and human components, but its author's worldview is too present, and too incompatible with mine, to make it a perfect read.

  • Red Shift by Alan Garner - Garner is well-known in the UK as the author of YA fantasy, but Red Shift, a strange not-quite-time-travel novel, was my first encounter with him, and it leaves me both curious and a little hesitant about exploring his writing further.  Strictly speaking, Red Shift isn't really a genre work.  It proceeds in three parallel plot strands--in the 2nd century, the 17th century, and the 1970s--but, though there are hints that these three stories are bleeding into each other, for the most part this feels more like a literary device than an actual fact of the novel's world, and the connection between the three strands seems more thematic than factual.  What gives Red Shift its genre feel is its style, which switches between the three time periods with no warning, sometimes mid-paragraph, and gives the reader so little information with which to ground themselves that working out where, or when, we are in any given segment of the book becomes an act of investigation, making this rather slim volume a slow, almost painstaking read.  That opaqueness extends to the events within each of the three plot strands.  In the distant past, a few defectors from the lost ninth Roman legion try to survive amidst the violent British tribes; in the 17th century, the residents of a small English village barricade themselves in the church when marauding French troops are spotted; and in the recent past, a emotionally unstable young man tries to maintain a long distance relationship with his girlfriend, whose career aspirations, in stark contrast to his lack of prospects, threaten to take her even farther away from him.  Working out these details, however, means battling against Garner's deliberate refusal to do any worldbuilding work--to explain what the legionnaires mean when they talk about Cats and Mothers (the names they give the local tribes), or why Tom and his girlfriend Jan are in the kind of financial and social straits they find themselves in.  This has the effect of making Red Shift seem almost hallucinatory, an effect that is intensified by the frequent shifts between time periods.  It also has the effect of making the modern love story--which is paralleled with different relationships between characters who are clearly intended as Tom and Jan's stand-ins in the other time periods--feel like the novel's most central, most important element, even when contrasted with the violence and high stakes of the other plot strands.  When that relationship crumbles, under the weight of difficult circumstances and Tom's emotional problems, Garner's stylistic choices and time-shifting storytelling intensify that loss until it feels like the world-shattering event that Tom perceives it as.  By its end, Red Shift is a powerful, disorienting, and discomforting book, but this doesn't quite erase the memory of how difficult, and often frustrating, it was to get through and puzzle out, which makes the prospect of continuing to read Garner a not entirely appealing one.

  • Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner - One of the few authors to escape the blanket rejection of anything German that was riding high in Israeli society as late as the 80s, Kästner's children's books have been a staple of Israeli juvenile culture for decades, to the point that he seems almost to have been adopted into the culture (HaBima's production of Pünktchen und Anton, adapted by noted Israeli humorist Ephraim Kishon, is deservedly considered a classic of Israeli children's theater).  His work for adults, however, has for the most part remained undiscovered, even by this appreciative audience--a brief attempt to translate his adult-oriented mystery novels in the late 90s seems to have fizzled out.  The present moment, however, in which wartime European novelists like Hans Fallada, Irmgard Keun, and Hans Keilson are enjoying the same newfound popularity in Hebrew that they have been in English, seems more hospitable to a rediscovery of Kästner, and I'd be curious to see whether Going to the Dogs (originally published as Fabian in 1932), will make the transition into Hebrew (not least because I think that Kästner's dryly witty, staccato style translates much better into Hebrew than English).

    In the meantime, however, we have NYRB Classics' edition, and what it reveals is a novel that, under the guise of Kästner's familiar, slightly old-fashioned tics--as in his children's books, for example, he maintains he 19th century affectation of opening each chapter with a summary of its events--is a quietly devastating, deeply political work.  The hero, Fabian, is an advertising copywriter in 1920s Germany, whose life teeters, and eventually falls off, a knife's edge.  Jobs are being eliminated overnight, even the people who do have jobs can't afford to live off their earnings, and the only people offering solutions, from the left or the right, are totalitarians and thugs.  Unable to move on with their lives or hope for the future, Fabian and his friends resign themselves to short-term pleasures, to drunken debauchery and anonymous hook-ups.  But Fabian, as the novel's subtitle tells us, is a moralist, and can't help but stand in priggish judgment of himself and his society, even though he has no better solution.  As a portrait of pre-war Germany (and an indictment of the "reasonable" middle class who allowed themselves to be dragged into Nazism because they lacked the conviction to demand or offer an alternative), Going to the Dogs is masterful, evoking both pity and rage at the blindness with which Fabian's society stumbles into war.  But there are also aspects of the novel that feel universal, and particularly relevant to the present moment, as when Fabian interacts with his elders--his father and his former teachers--whose generation embroiled their country in war and economic collapse, but who are short-sightedly incapable of seeing why the younger generation can't achieve the same things they did, and blame it on the laziness and shiftlessness of youth.  It's a reminder that some things never change, and that our present moment holds dangers that we haven't fully comprehended, so it's a shame that Going to the Dogs has such a glaring blind spot when it comes to its female characters, who often bear the brunt of Fabian's moralism.  Whether they sell their love (usually the only thing they have to sell), or give it away for free, Fabian seems to regard women in the same position as him with blanket disapproval, and Kästner depicts them, almost universally, as either predatory or weak, but never as complicated or sympathetic as his male hero.  It's an unfortunate blemish in a novel that otherwise feels achingly relevant.

  • Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih - Sofia Samatar recommended this novel in her list of five Arabic novels to read before you die.  It was also selected as the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century by the Arab Academy in 2004 (which is why it was my first stop on Sofia's list), and having read the book, even without a grounding in any other Arabic literature, I can see why.  In a deceptively slim volume, Salih somehow manages to cover an enormous range of topics--colonialism and post-colonialism; tradition and modernity; the life of an assimilated Arab in Europe and the life of a European-educated Arab back in his home country; government corruption and local politics; the life and relationships in a small village; relations between men and women, whether governed by traditions and social mores or the flouting of them; the dread of what a post-colonial future will bring to the Arab world.  That Salih manages this at all is stunning, but that he does so in a book that is as artful, as beautifully written, and as touching as Season of Migration to the North is almost impossible to believe.  The core story involves the Sudanese narrator returning to his home village after getting his education in England, and growing curious about a new neighbor, who obviously shares his education but conceals it, and his past.  This beginning, however, promises a much more straightforward story than Salih ends up delivering.  The neighbor, Mustafah Sa'eed, dies shortly after his introduction, and the narrator intersperses his investigation into Sa'eed's past with the day-to-day details of his life, which include observing how modernity (which often means Western values and technologies) encroaches into life in the Sudan, and how its folded into the old ways of life, both good and bad. 

    At times, Migration feels aimless, a portrait of the Sudan at its present moment--the scene in which the narrator listens to the old people of the village discuss marriage and their sexual history is funny and vivid but seems to exist solely to give us a sense of how life in the village works.  At others, it seems to reject this kind of realistic portrait-painting for a more overheated allegory of Arab-European relations--Sa'eed, we learn, had a string of lovers in England, all of whom were drawn to his exoticism like moths to the flame, and with the same self-destructive results, and his defining trauma was a marriage to a woman whom he could neither love nor leave, and whom he ended up killing.  That these very different modes tie together well enough to feel like organic components of the same story, which is simultaneously allegorical and realistic, is yet more evidence for how great an achievement Migration is.  In fact, if I have any criticism of Migration, it's that it feels too big, too all-consuming, too definitive, as if its statements about the role and influence of European colonialism on Arab countries had settled the matter once and for all, leaving no room for anyone to add anything to the conversation.  I'm sure, however, that that's not the case, and happily I have the rest of the books on Sofia's list to look forward to.

  • The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger - At first glance, Jünger appears to sit well with those other rediscovered pre-war and wartime European authors I mentioned in my discussion of Going to the Dogs above, but a quick glance at his biography suggests a less savory story.  Jünger appears to have had a talent for standing just to the left of the wrong side of history, somehow managing to talk his way out of meaningful consequences for his associations.  You wouldn't necessarily know that from The Glass Bees, however, which feels almost like a companion piece to Going to the Dogs.  Though published in 1957, it is set, like Dogs, after a world-changing war and in the midst of economic upheaval, but its setting isn't precisely our world.  The narrator, Richard, is a former cavalry officer who made a career change to armored weapons acquisition after his branch of the military collapsed, and who played a small, unsung role in the not very peaceful transition from monarchy to republic.  This biography largely tracks with events in Germany during and after WWI, but Jünger's descriptions are vague enough (and in some cases deliberately universalized--Richard's name, like the names of many of his former colleagues in the army, is English rather than German) that The Glass Bees feels as if it takes place in its own invented world.  This feels particularly true when Richard is offered a job working personal security for Zapparoni, an industrialist who sells robots who do everything from performing household tasks to working in factories to appearing in movies.

    The novel itself only covers Richard's interview with Zapparoni, and the bulk of it is filled up with his reminiscences of the world of Empire, honor and tradition in which he grew up, and with his observations about what the world has become now that these have been lost, with the interview giving the story only the very flimsiest of skeletons on which to hang these reveries.  Some of these interludes are extremely well done--Richard is cynical and sardonic as only a former idealist can be, and his stories of his training in a doomed type of warfare, and of the people who failed to make the transition from the more courtly world he grew up in into the more crass world of the present, are affecting without being too sentimental about that lost world.  So, too, are his musings about the effect of technology on society, which are sometimes eerily prescient.  Zapparoni is an almost Steve Jobs-ish figure, and Richard's analysis of the miniature high-tech industry he spawns, and of the effect of his robots on society, feels utterly of the moment.  Analysis, however, is very nearly all that Richard does, and The Glass Bees often lapses into long stretches of him telling us, rather than showing us, what a world with Zapparoni's technology, and his power as a super-rich industrialist, looks like.  In these segments, Richard's sardonic tone works against the novel.  He comes off like a blowhard, who likes to show off how well he understands the world even though the actual circumstances of his life--a disgraced military officer with so few prospects that he's forced to take a shady job which will almost certainly lead to an early death--by no means justify his superior, knowing tone.  In its best moments, The Glass Bees is a feat of worldbuilding whose power is rooted in being both strange and familiar, historical and futuristic.  But in its worst moments it feels as if Jünger has sat us down for a long, meandering, self-satisfied lecture.  The two modes alternate enough that there's a lot here worth reading for, but the end result is far from satisfying.

  • Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky - A lecturer on theater and culture in Imperial and then Soviet Russia, Krzhishanovsky wrote for decades fiction that was absurdist and surrealist, and thus banned by the Soviet censorship.  His fiction wasn't rediscovered until decades after his death, and Autobiography of a Corpse is one of the first published collections of Krzhizhanovsky's stories in any language.  What's interesting is that the stories here address political issues only obliquely, if at all--in the title story, for example, the protagonist receives a letter from the previous inhabitant of his room, who committed suicide in it, which references WWI and the revolution, but only as background details.  What was presumably considered dangerous and seditious about these stories is not anything in their content, but their treatment of the world as something fragile, a thin membrane of normalcy which is little more than an agreed-upon delusion.  In "The Collector of Cracks," for example, an author attempting to harness fairy tales to deliver easily digestible, middlebrow irony encounters the title character, who has seen through the facade of reality that even fabulist fiction relies on for its power.  Some stories are driven by absurdist premises: in "In the Pupil," the narrator believes that a woman loves him only while he can see his reflection in her pupil; when this reflection, a tiny version of the narrator, materializes in the real world, he reports that the reflections of all the beloved's previous lovers are trapped in an oubliette behind her eye, reminiscing about their past with her and trying to work out why she fell out of love with them.  In "The Unbitten Elbow" (one of the more overtly political stories in the collection), a man announces that his greatest ambition is to bite his elbow, and becomes a celebrity, whom the authorities use as a distraction and as a way of conning money out of the public, all while he devours himself in pursuit of his goal.  In other stories, however, Krzhizhanovsky's musings about the thinness of reality seem disconnected from any concrete plot elements, however strange or surreal.  Stories like "Postmark: Moscow" read more like stream-of-consciousness musings about the nature of the titular city, and I found them tougher going.  Autobiography of a Corpse is split fairly evenly between these two types of stories, and thus offered mingled pleasures and frustrations, but it is nevertheless clearly the work of a remarkably assured writer, one whose rediscovery hasn't come a moment too soon.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Recent Movie Roundup 18

Wow, it's been a while since we did one of these.  Usually fall and early winter are a dead season for movies, with the summer's blockbusters having died down and the winter's prestige films not having arrived yet, but this year there's been a deluge of genre and genre-adjacent work.  I've written about some of these films--Gravity and Catching Fire--at greater length, and some others, like Frozen or About Time, will have to wait until I catch up with them out of the movie theater.  Here, however, are some shorter thoughts on recent releases.
  • The Congress - Ari Folman's follow-up to Waltz With Bashir, an (apparently, very loose) adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress, stars Robin Wright as a version of herself, who is offered the chance to jump-start a moribund career by allowing herself to be scanned and turned into a digital, eternally young actress.  Twenty years later, Wright travels to the titular congress to see what changes scanning technology has wrought on human society.  The first half of The Congress, in which Wright debates the pros and cons of being scanned, put me strongly in mind of the films of Andrew Niccol--it has the same kind of gorgeous, lushly lit, highly stylized look, and gives off the same impression of a world that has perhaps a few dozen people in it and whose worldbuilding would fall apart if you thought about it for even a moment.  The second half, in which the film transitions from live action to animation, is something much weirder and harder to define.  At the congress, Wright catches a glimpse of a society in which anyone can choose how they present themselves to the world, but when she's caught in an attack by anti-technology activists, her--and our--grip on reality slips completely.  From there, she travels to the far future to see how humanity is remade by total access to drugs that allow one to shape their own reality--and exist in complete isolation from everyone else, who is doing the same.  That the film is hard to parse and often nonsensical is obviously not a point against it, since its central theme is that of constructed reality, and the alienation that results from it.  And even at its most opaque, The Congress offers some wonderfully psychedelic animation as an illustration of how foreign the world of the future has become.  In fact, my problem with the film is that it isn't weird enough.  In her tour through the future, Wright is guided by a former scanning engineer voiced by John Hamm, who spends most of his time explaining the world to her, which eventually leaves The Congress feeling more like a treatise than a story.  Even the throughline about Wright trying to find out what became of her son can't quite overcome the fact that the film is an extended and luridly animated infodump.  The Congress is worth seeing for its animation, and simply because there hasn't been anything else like it in genre cinema in a long time.  But when it comes to opaque, non-linear genre films in 2013, it is definitely the also-ran to Upstream Color's winner.

  • Thor: The Dark World - In a lot of ways, the second Thor film is a massive improvement on the first.  The plot reaches for something a little more complex than the first film's half-baked redemption-cum-origin-story narrative, and integrates previously underused characters, like Natalie Portman's Jane Foster or Idris Elba's Heimdal, more fully into that story.  The film features the same fish out of water humor that was Thor's most endearing trait, but doesn't use it as a crutch the way that film did--where I found myself, while watching Thor, waiting for the Asgard scenes to pass so that we could get back to Chris Hemsworth's comedy antics on Earth, The Dark World makes them compelling in their own right (not least because most of the action sequences take place there, and are quite kinetic and fun), and the transition to the more jokey tone of the Earth-set scenes is not so jarring.  Most importantly, however, The Dark World manages to avoid the massive pitfall that is Tom Hiddlestone's Loki, an unrepentant, psychotic mass-murderer who was also the most compelling character in the first film (and is arguably one of the most appealing figures in the whole Marvel movie franchise).  The danger of making Loki a misunderstood victim, or letting him walk away with the movie (again) is ever-present, but The Dark World manages to strike a balance in its handling of him.  It features Loki heavily, but in such a way that the audience is never allowed to forget what he is.  This Loki, who has been imprisoned as a result of his actions in The Avengers, is bitter and steeped in self-pity, blaming everyone but himself for his crimes, able to see (and ruthlessly castigate) everyone's flaws but his own, and fundamentally, constitutionally unhappy.  The Dark World makes a compelling argument that Loki is, on some level, mentally ill, and the film's best scenes are the ones he shares with Thor, which drive home how difficult it is to care about someone who may be incapable of returning or deserving that love.

    All of this, however, is to make The Dark World sound a great deal better than it actually is.  As much as it improves on its predecessor, this film also confirms me in my feeling that the Thor films are the lemon of the Marvel cinematic universe.  The plot may be more complex than the Thor's, but it is just as McGuffin-driven--an all-powerful object called the Aether which has the power to destroy all creation--and its solution consists of throwing technobabble at the problem and, when that proves insufficient, throwing Thor at it (at which he succeeds, despite the Aether's hysterically built-up power, by sheer dint of his main character-ness).  Though a stab is made at giving Jane more to do, she still spends the middle segment of the movie as, quite literally, a damsel in distress, and the technobabbly nature of the film's final act means that her day-saving efforts in it don't register as strongly as this earlier passivity (neither, by the way, does her romance with Thor, which is still completely inert and unconvincing).  Worst of all, Thor himself remains a bland, uninteresting character, his newfound gravitas and sense of purpose in the wake of Thor's events ringing as false as that film's selfish, oafish version of the character (in that sense, one of the film's biggest missteps is a cameo from Chris Evans's Captain America; though it makes for a very funny scene, it also reminds us that that sub-franchise has managed to create a main character who is earnest, stalwart, and fundamentally good but also interesting, while the Thor films haven't).  So long as Loki is around, the Thor films will have life in them, but even in The Dark World's interesting handling of the character there are cracks (most frustratingly, playing Stellan Skarsgård's Erik Selvig, whose abuse at Loki's hands in The Avengers has left him permanently damaged, for comic relief; for a film that takes Loki's mental illness so seriously, it's disappointing to see such a flippant treatment of a mental breakdown he caused).  The story set up by the film's ending feels like yet another go-around on a familiar track, and doesn't leave me hopeful about the future of this sub-franchise.

  • The Challenger Disaster and An Adventure in Space and Time - Isn't it always the way?  You wait around for years for a dramatized reenactment of historical events of interest to SF fans, and then two come along at once.  The subject matters of these two films couldn't be more different: The Challenger Disaster tells the story of Richard Feynman's role on the commission investigating the explosion of the eponymous shuttle, exposing the failed institutional culture at NASA that led to it, while An Adventure in Space and Time, which was made to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, dramatizes the program's inception and early days.  Nevertheless, they make some surprisingly similar narrative and stylistic choices (almost uncannily, both films end by playing their closing credits over a recording of the real events they had previously dramatized--Feynman showily exposing the rigidity of the infamous O-rings under low temperatures in a televized session of the inquiry commission, and William Hartnell as the first Doctor bidding farewell to his granddaughter Susan).  I expected both films to be a great deal more procedural than they ended up being--to get into the minutiae of how the Rogers Commission operated or how Doctor Who as we know it came into being--but instead they seem to take it as read that the audience knows most of these details.  They both take a more impressionistic approach, dropping in and out of events (and often eliding or underplaying the big "a-ha!" moments of discovery or invention), and focusing instead on the feeling--of both the characters and the audience--that what's being depicted is important and historically significant.

    This works better on The Challenger Disaster, whose argument (which, for all I know, may be a known historical fact) is that everyone at NASA, and vast swathes of the US government, knew or at least strongly suspected the cause of the Challenger explosion as soon as it happened, and that Feynman's importance was less as a scientist or investigator and more as an outside voice willing to call out the way that bureaucracy and politics had been allowed to drown out science in NASA's decision-making.  And it helps, of course, that with seven lives lost and the future of the American space program at stake, the film doesn't have to work too hard to sell the momentousness of its events.  There are some people, I know, who might say the same about An Adventure in Space and Time, but though I like Doctor Who and recognize the accomplishment of a single program running (through however many regenerations) for half a century, I'm not one of them, and so the tone of hushed awe that the film often strikes, in lieu of a more detailed look at how Who came into being, aroused my cynicism more often than my sympathy.  (After all, for all that the characters frequently pause to marvel at how special and significant their show is, the reason that Who's 50th anniversary was marked with such pomp and ceremony is that the program is once again popular and making the BBC tons of money; does anyone, for example, think that in three years NBC will do nearly as much to mark the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, a franchise that now exists only in a zombified form?)  An Adventure is at its best when it allows its characters to argue for Who's significance, as when the show's first producer, Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), fights for the episode introducing the Daleks over the objections of the BBC's head of Drama Sydney Newman (Brian Cox), who wants the program to strike a more high-minded, educational tone, by arguing that they represent an important message about tolerance and compassion (it also helps that the film offers a counterpoint to Lambert's claims, in several scenes in which the show's juvenile audience is seen to embrace the Daleks as just the kind of "bug-eyed monsters" that Newman wanted to avoid).  But too often the film seems, to its detriment, to take that significance for granted.

    What saves both films--Adventure from its self-importance, and Challenger from its total lack of surprises--are their lead performances.  As Feynman, William Hurt conveys not only intelligence but a genuine belief in the power of science and scientific inquiry to make life better.  His outrage when scientists and engineers allow their judgment and conclusions to be superseded by business and political interests (which he also directs at himself, for his participation in the Manhattan Project) is all the more palpable for being understated, a sort of dark bemusement at the lethal foolishness and short-sightedness he discovers when he looks closer at Challenger and the culture that created it.  His performance, however, isn't one of cool superiority and righteous indignation--in fact, I'd say that there is something almost Doctor-ish about Hurt's Feynman, who is driven by profound humanist principles and forges instant connections with those who, like him, aren't content to simply keep their heads down and do their job--in this story, Bruce Greenwood's General Donald Kutyna and Eve Best's Sally Ride, who help Feynman find and expose the truth about Challenger.   (It might, however, have been worthwhile for the film to acknowledge that whatever effect Feynman might have had on NASA culture was only temporary, that less than twenty years later a small-mindedness similar to the kind he exposed would lead to the loss of another shuttle and its crew, and the end of the program.)

    It's the Doctor, too, who is the heart of An Adventure in Space and Time.  Though Lambert, and her struggles as the first female producer in the BBC's history, are the focus of the film's first half, she fades into the background after the show becomes a success, and it's David Bradley's performance as Hartnell that comes to fore.  The crux of the film is that Hartnell, naturally enough, never thought of himself as "the first Doctor" but simply as the Doctor, and Bradley captures his joy and sense of responsibility towards the role, as well as his sadness when he realizes that the show will go on without him.  That sadness--the recognition that, for all that it has become an enduring institution for its fans, Doctor Who was a fleeting, irretrievable experience for its creators and the people who worked on it--is the film's most complex note, so it's a shame that, in its final moments, An Adventure in Space and Time sinks back into the fug of self-congratulation, focusing more on the folks watching in 2013 than on the characters in the 60s.  (In particular, a last minute cameo in which Hartnell seems to sense his connection with the long line of actors who will follow him is clearly all about the fanservice; the character of Hartnell, as developed by the film until that point, would have no reason to take comfort from the knowledge that the role he thought of as his own was in fact only his in stewardship.)  Despite these flaws, both films are worth watching, if only for the novelty of such serious attention (and production budgets) being paid to stories about people who, to quote Craig Ferguson, work hard to make sure that intellect and romance will triumph over brute force and cynicism, whether in the real world or in the stories we tell.  In their own way, they both seem to embody the spirit of science fiction, and I would be happy to see one or both on next year's Hugo ballot.

  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - I've seen a lot of reactions calling Desolation an improvement on the first volume in Peter Jackson's bloated Hobbit trilogy, and while I can see where these are coming from--it's certainly a more exciting, more propulsive film than An Unexpected Journey, whose meanderings occasionally crossed the line into a dull slog--I wonder whether that's not a function of the source material.  Desolation covers some of my favorite parts of The Hobbit, including the journey through Mirkwood, the dwarfs' capture and imprisonment by the wood elves, and their escape and arrival in Lake Town.  This gives Jackson, and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, a lot of scope for action and chase scenes, and makes for a less episodic story (especially as this adaptation contracts the timeframe of these events, which in the novel take several weeks, into a few days).  Nevertheless, to my mind Desolation and Journey are very much of a piece, which is to say that I enjoyed them while recognizing that they are neither faithful to the original book nor particularly good in themselves.  The flaws of self-indulgence, of a dissonance between the story Jackson is adapting and the tone he wants to strike, and of being more interested in (for the most part, invented) details about the early rumblings of the War of the Ring than in the actual story of The Hobbit, are back in force here, as are some increasingly distracting directorial tics.

    Jackson seems to have little faith in the ability of his actors or his script to elicit an emotional response, because nearly every time a scene seems to be gearing up for some genuine character interaction (as opposed to characters expositing at each other to move the plot along), he cuts away and lets the New Zealand scenery, or some CGI version of Alan Lee's art, or the overbearing soundtrack, do the heavy lifting.  And, if you thought the escape from the hall of the goblin king in Journey, with its shifting and crumbling walkways, its improbable feats of acrobatics, and its careening camera, felt a little too much like Jackson compensating himself for the fact that he will probably never be asked to direct an Indiana Jones film, Desolation features three such sequences.  All are well done and kinetic, but the cartoon physics and the characters' seeming indestructibility leach all urgency and tension from the film, finally giving the impression that we're watching a theme park ride or a level in a computer game--a far cry from the fight scenes in the Lord of the Rings films, where every blow had real heft and consequences.  Perhaps most importantly, though Desolation tries to acknowledge the importance of mercantilism (and its rejection) in The Hobbit--its two interim villains are the elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace), who tries to extort a share of Smaug's hoard from Thorin, and the Master of Lake Town (Stephen Fry), who spews 1% rhetoric so thick there might as well be a neon sign flashing THEME behind him--it can't get away from the fact that Jackson has irrevocably changed Thorin, from the book's hard-headed, greedy pragmatist, to an angst-ridden but heroic warrior.  The film's insistence that Thorin is blinded by greed--which includes repositioning the Arkenstone as his equivalent of the one ring, seducing him with its promise of wealth--thus has very little grounding in the character it has created.

    Nevertheless, Desolation has its pleasures, not least among them the discovery that it's not just Martin Freeman's performance as Bilbo that's carrying this new, lesser trilogy.  Bilbo has a fantastic scene early in the film in which he begins to realize the power that the ring is already exerting on him (one of the few instances in which Jackson's attempts to turn The Hobbit into a prequel to The Lord of the Rings work, genuinely imbuing the older, simpler story with added power rather than simply changing it beyond recognition).  But for the rest of the film he fades into the background, moving the plot along but no longer its emotional core (even the vaunted confrontation between Bilbo and Benedict Cumberbatch's Smaug falls flat, with the two characters failing to spark against each other as Bilbo and Gollum did in Journey).  Instead, new characters come to the fore and discover new notes in this hybrid story.  These include Pace's Thranduil, who is recognizably elvish even as he plays a villainous character, content to ignore the darkness sweeping over Middle Earth so long as his realm remains safe, and Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel, an invented character whose story is pure Mary Sue--she's a fearsome warrior who is the only one of Thranduil's subjects to recognize the coming danger of Sauron's return and object to his isolationist policy, and ends up in a love triangle with Orlando Bloom's Legolas and Aidan Turner's Kili--but who nevertheless turns out to be one of the film's bright points, for the first time humanizing the trilogy's throughline of Middle Earth's old powers realizing that they must set aside petty differences and prepare to fight Sauron.  Her rapport with Kili, too, is one of the few places in which Desolation lets its characters breathe, and Turner, who also comes to the fore in this film, justifies the added presence given to his character in Journey.  Like Journey, Desolation is a film best enjoyed for its moments rather than its whole, and the fact that these moments don't rest solely on Freeman's shoulders give me hope that, however lumpy and misshapen the Hobbit trilogy ends up being, there's something genuine at its core that makes it more than an addendum to the Rings films.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Over at Strange Horizons, I review Catching Fire, the second film in the Hunger Games series.  I was quite excited going into the movie, since while I'd read the first book before seeing the film based on it, and have picked up the major events of the third book, Mockingjay, by fannish osmosis, I went into Catching Fire "clean," knowing nothing about it.  In hindsight, I probably should have wondered about that, since Catching Fire turns out to have little reason to exist as a story in its own right, and in that absence ends up drawing attention to the Hunger Games series's core flaws.  A lot of the complaints I raise against the film are therefore probably problems with the book, but where The Hunger Games managed to address a lot of the weaknesses of its source material, Catching Fire hasn't done so--or perhaps the problem is that, not having read the book, I'm less aware of how the film alleviates its problems, and thus less inclined to excuse its flaws.